Lauren Marnel Shores
Heard from over a quarter mile away, the bells in Storke Tower echo through the quiet morning serenity blanketing UC Santa Barbara’s campus. Be it a piece from Bach or Beauty and the Beast, the music notes drifting from the iconic tower gently lull campus residents back into wakefulness after long evenings out.
Through each performance, it is University Carillonist Wesley Arai and his music students who take on the unsung mantle of playing for campus, sitting atop Storke Tower to manually play an instrument known as the carillon. Each year, three students are given the opportunity to not only play the carillon for the UCSB community, but earn course credit while doing so.
“I think the biggest misconception is that people just assume that the bells are played by a computer, but it’s actually played by a real person,” explained Arai. “That’s really the biggest thing — just to know that there’s actually a person who is putting their soul into playing this instrument, just like you would a piano or violin.”
Arai has been teaching the carillon class (Music 24 and Music 124) since fall quarter when the previous University Carillonist, Margo Halsted, retired. For the past year, Arai has been keeping the tradition alive by allowing musically inclined students to climb the steps of Storke Tower to play for the UCSB community.
The carillon itself resembles a large wooden keyboard, each key corresponding to one of 61 bells located within the tower. “It’s all mechanical, there’s no real automated part about it,” said Arai. “Everything you hear is the performer’s physical action — that being translated into the bells being struck.”
Musicians play the instrument using their fists and feet, engaging all four limbs as they perform. Such a full body experience is part of what makes playing the carillon unique, explained first year computer engineering major Emily O’Mahony, one of Arai’s students. She described playing the carillon as much more “dramatic” than the piano, the instrument she grew up playing.
“My professor, Wesley Arai, is really encouraging and he is obviously a master of his trade, so it’s really cool to study with him,” said O’Mahony. She explained that she first stumbled upon the class while browsing through the course catalog. Prior to auditioning, she knew “very little” about the carillon, but has since learned not only how to play the instrument, but much of its history from being in the class.
“To have the opportunity to really teach the next generation of carillon players is a pretty good set up,” said Arai, “and just to have the ability to have students be able to connect to that pretty big landmark [Storke Tower].”
At the base of Storke Tower, a 190-foot elevator ride delivers musicians up to the top of the building. Once inside, visitors climb the spiral staircase to the peak of the tower, cast bronze bells suspended with pulley systems adorning the ceiling all around.
At the very peak sits the carillon itself, sheltered within a locked glass box. Surrounded on all sides by windows overlooking the outside world, carillon artists are privy to a 360 view from the tallest structure in southern Santa Barbara County. Positioned directly in front of the carillon sits one of the larger bells, inscribed with the bell’s installation date, the university’s logo, and UCSB’s motto fiat lux, “let there be light.”
Amidst a privileged panorama of the UC Santa Barbara campus, the Santa Ynez Mountains, and the Channel Islands, artists are given the unique opportunity to command the attention of UCSB’s campus.
“I try to get students who have a good musical background,” said Arai, “whether that’s in piano or voice or other instruments from various years in school.”
After auditioning to be part of the one unit class, students begin practicing their pieces with a mini carillon in the music building. With about three weeks of practice, students can begin to play the carillon in Storke Tower itself.
Throughout the quarter, students continue to engage in weekly private lessons with Arai. Once inside Storke, Arai said he gives students “free reign” to arrange their own music pieces, ranging from classical music, to pop songs like tunes from Smash Mouth, to video game soundtracks.
Students in the class are given a list of sign up times each weekend during which they can play the Storke carillon, practicing as often as they like during designated times. “Some might practice on the carillon once per week while others might only get up the tower to practice once a quarter,” said Arai. “All of the students have regular access to a separate practice keyboard in the music building in the meanwhile.”
When asked why the class was started, Arai said, “I believe it was just to get more connection of the tower, which is a pretty iconic campus landmark, to the general … campus body. Just to be able to keep the carillon art growing since it’s actually a fairly small, niche kind of community of people who actually know about the carillon and people who know how to play it.”
According to the World Carillon Federation, there are only six carillons in California, three of which reside at UC schools.
“It’s a fairly rare thing, and even in the U.S., most of the carillons are in the Midwest and on the East Coast, so it’s a pretty big asset, I’d say, to the campus community to have a carillon at UCSB,” said Arai.
Those interested in learning more about the carillon can attend the free recitals being put on throughout the quarter. The music department will be hosting several special performances this year because 2019 marks Storke Tower’s 50th birthday from when the carillon was gifted by Thomas Storke, former publisher of the Santa Barbara News-Press.
Students can follow the music department’s website for upcoming recitals throughout the year. Following summer recitals, attendees can take free tours to the top of Storke to see the carillon for themselves.
Students interested in auditioning for the carillon class can contact Arai to be part of the next round of auditions for fall quarter. Arai’s email is firstname.lastname@example.org.